Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

2009 was my 23rd year climbing in the Karakoram. During this period I have led a total of five expeditions to the 8,000m peaks Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak. In recent years I have been more active on the 8,000m peaks in Nepal and Tibet. This expedition was my first Karakoram 8,000 peak since 2001. Some things had changed in the Baltoro area since my previous expeditions, many had not.

It was good to meet up with my regular crew of Pakistani staff. Some of the cooks, guides and HAP's (high altitude porters) have worked with me for over 20 years. Ali Raza has been my leading HAP since 1998 and it was good to have his eldest son, Ashraf, working for me for the first time. Ali Raza has climbed Gasherbrum II with me three times before and we were both looking forward to giving his son a chance to climb his first 8000m peak.

Since my previous expeditions to the Gasherbrum peaks in the late 1990's the area has steadily become more popular with Pakistan based companies offering inexpensive packages for climbers wishing to climb the 'easier'  8000m peaks. In recent years there have been more than 20 teams sharing Gasherbrum Base Camp. Compared to the Tibetan and Nepalese 8,000m peaks the level of cooperation between the different teams is often poor. Every year tensions develop between the better-resourced expeditions that provide most of the manpower and material to prepare the routes, and those climbers who wish to use the fixed ropes without contributing towards their upkeep.

The deteriorating military situation along the Pakistan/Afghan border together with terrorist activity within Pakistan during 2008/9 caused several expeditions to postpone their plans to climb in the Karakoram in the summer of 2009. The number of climbing expeditions in the Karakoram had dropped back to the figures that I had been familiar with a decade previously. Sadly the stable weather patterns that I enjoyed on many of my previous visits were absent this year, and 2009 has gone down in the record books as one of the poorest years in recent history for successful Karakoram expeditions.

This was a very well resourced and supported expedition. Historically Karakoram expeditions have less 'comfortable' Base Camps than the Nepalese and Tibetan 8,000m peaks. The reason for this is simple: the Karakoram Base Camps are more remote and it costs more to transport equipment to them. For this trip I wanted to bring the standard of the Base Camp services as close as possible to the Nepal/Tibet model. Our expedition had 5 climbers and 2 guides. We were supported by a Base Camp team of 10 people (Local guide: Sharif / Cooks: Hussain, Ibrahim, Ali, Ishak / HAP's: Ali Raza, Shukoor, Abdullah, Mahmat, Ashraf) and it took 105 porters to transport the expedition equipment and supplies on the nine-day trek to Base Camp.

We planned to spend 4 weeks climbing the mountain from our arrival in Base camp on 21 June until our planned departure on 20/21 July. This timescale had served me well in the past. It would give sufficient time for the HAP's to stock the three camps needed on the mountain and enable the climbers to make two or three acclimatisation trips onto the mountain (visiting Camps 1 & 2) before a summit bid in mid July. The records will show that there were very few summit successes in Pakistan in the summer of 2009 and 'bad weather' will be the explanation. The actual situation is a little more complex. There was a lot of very good weather during June and July, but it just did not follow a pattern that would allow safe ascents of the large snow covered peaks. There had been a lot of late spring snowfall in the Karakoram during April and into May. This meant that there was a deeper snow pack on the mountains at the start of the summer than there would be in an 'average' year. Throughout June and July 3/4/5 day periods of stable sunny weather alternated with shorter periods of heavy precipitation that added substantial amounts of new snow onto the already loaded slopes. Put simply the good weather spells were too short to allow the snow slopes to consolidate sufficiently to allow safe travel on the upper slopes of the 8000m peaks.

The longest sustained good weather period coincided with our first acclimatisation trip onto the mountain. From 23-28 June the team climbed to Camp One before returning to BC. Had we been aware of the weather patterns to come it might have been a better choice to use this period to push further up the mountain and sleep at Camp Two. Following this trip we were confined to Base Camp until 8/9 July by a combination of bad weather and forecasts of bad weather. We were therefore unable to follow the plan of making a further acclimatisation trip to Camp Two before making our summit bid.

The weather forecasts available to the expeditions in BC indicated that a good weather spell would allow a summit bid to be made around 14/15 July. Together with other teams in Base Camp we decided to move up the mountain in order to be in position to take advantage of this 'weather window'. On 10 July we climbed to Camp Two and remained there for 3 nights. The weather remained unsettled and we could see evidence of strong winds on the upper slopes of Gasherbrum I & II. The forecasts were presenting a confusing picture of wind speeds and snowfall for the days ahead. On the morning of 12 July David and Ali Raza climbed to Camp 3, digging out some fixed ropes that had become buried under new snowfalls and adding 200m of new rope. Heavy overnight snowfall on the night of 12/13 July effectively ended the summit bid, and the team descended to Camp One in deteriorating weather. It was clear that it would not be possible to mount another summit bid for at least another 10 days and this would require an extension of the expedition beyond our planned return date.

Reluctantly we agreed to bring the expedition to a close and requested porters to collect the team from Base Camp. On 19th July the expedition left BC in two groups: Adele took the 4 expedition members along with a group of porters from Hushe village over the Ghondokoro La Pass to the roadhead at Hushe. David travelled with the bulk of the expedition equipment on the longer, but technically easier, trek to Askole. Both groups reached Skardu in the afternoon of 22 July and were able to fly to Islamabad the following day. Within a few days everyone was on their way home.

The group were obviously disappointed not to have had an opportunity to make a serious summit bid, however given the prevailing weather conditions on the mountain I doubt that we could have done more than we did in the timescale available to us

David Hamilton 30/07/2009

The fixed rope issue

I have climbed big mountains without the use of fixed ropes. On the right mountain with suitably experienced partners I may do so again. However the vast majority of climbers attempting peaks like Gasherbrum II require fixed ropes to facilitate their ascent of the mountain and equally importantly to provide a safe route of decent should problems be encountered high on the mountain.

Some expeditions and individuals came to Gasherbrum II with the necessary resources to contribute to fixing the ropes needed. Others were unable to provide equipment or manpower, but were prepared to make cash contributions to the teams who did this job. A third category of climbers arrived with the intention of using the ropes fixed by others while making no contribution. This situation is clearly undesirable and is the major source of conflicts and bad feelings between teams.

Here are the facts from Gasherbrum II in 2009.

The total amount of rope required was in the region of 2,500m, along with the appropriate amount of snow stakes, ice screws, carabiners etc. These items were provided mostly by the Jagged Globe expedition led by David Hamilton and the Altitude Junkies expedition led by Phil Crampton. The Amical expedition led by Herbert also made a significant contribution by providing rope & snow stakes and transporting these to camps one and two. I estimate that the cost of purchasing this equipment, transporting it to Pakistan, and transporting it to Base Camp was around USD$7,000. Once at base camp these items had to be transported to camp one, camp two, camp three etc and fixed in place. This required a considerable amount of staff time from the HAP's employed by Jagged Globe and Sherpas employed by Altitude Junkies (helped by the Amical HAP's). It is reasonable to estimate that 30% of all the work undertaken by these 11 staff was directly involved with transporting and fixing ropes. 30% of their wages and travel costs would give a figure of $7,000 - $8,000. Therefore the true cost of providing and fixing 2,500m of rope on Gasherbrum II is in the region of $14,000 / $15,000.
Jagged Globe, Altitude Junkies and Amical provided the kit and did the work.

A meeting was held at Base Camp on 2 July and all the other teams were invited to make cash contributions. This was a positive meeting conducted in a friendly and cooperative atmosphere. Everyone present agreed to work together although the amounts and details were left vague.

In the following days the Iranian expedition (20 members) gave $1,000, the Canada West group (3 members) gave $400, and a 2 man Spain/Argentina group gave $150. While I welcome these contributions they do not go far towards compensating the 3 groups who had collectively paid out $15,000. I suggest that a fairer split of these costs would have been for the 3 leading expeditions to cover 50% of the costs with the remaining 7 or 8 teams contributing the remaining 50%.

The 'roll of shame' of teams who contributed nothing is:
Jasmine Tours (4 members offered to pay $100 each but never did, the other 4 members kept their heads down and never showed up at the meetings)
Koreans (did not say much, looked bewildered and pretended not to know what was going on)
Spanish (just played evasive - until one of their number went missing and they were looking for help in finding him)
Czech (arrived in BC late, used the ropes but never asked who put them there)

15 years ago when I was climbing the Karakoram 8000m peaks for the first time teams would arrive in Base Camp and ask 'who is coordinating the rope fixing, and how can we help?' Now it seems that climbers arrive at an 8,0000m mountain expecting to find ropes fixed to the summit that they can use for no cost. It is a sad development that brings no credit to the mountaineering community.

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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Hartshill
Nuneaton
Warwickshire
CV10 0SG

Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

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